I realize that to use the expression, “Bible-thumper” is to use a pejorative term and while it is not my intention to offend anyone, the expression seems to fit for what I want to write today. For me, a Bible-thumper is a Christian (I have never heard of a Jewish Bible-thumper) who uses the Bible as a source to attack/defame another person’s character instead of employing it as a guide to proper living and correct conduct. Bible-thumpers tend to be depressingly ignorant of anything else except what the Bible says and of what kind of behavior is expected of a Christian.
I know that it may be hard to believe but Jesus would not be welcome in most contemporary Bible-thumping fundamentalist churches. Fundamentalists tend to thrive on drawing distinctions between their “truth” and other people’s absence of such “truths.” Even as they profess to spread Jesus’ word, I find that fundamentalists either forget or are oblivious to Jesus’ most important message: compassion. Jesus obliterated such differences with his compassion.
We see this compassion at work every time someone puts love ahead of what the “Bible says.”
We see this compassion at work every time Pope Francis puts inclusion ahead of institutional dogma.
We see this compassion at work every time a gay person is welcomed into a church or a divorced couple is offered the sacrament that Jesus instituted.
And, yes, we see this compassion at work every time an atheist follows Jesus better than most Christians.
As Joseph Campbell, the world-renowned philosopher and author once wrote: “I think of compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”
Recently, I read sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s thought-provoking book, Society Without God, a study in which he discusses how Denmark and Sweden became probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world. While many people, especially Christian conservatives, argue that godless societies devolve into lawlessness and immorality, Denmark and Sweden are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast of some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, unrestricted social policies, outstanding bike paths, and lest we forget, great beer. In secular, non-church-going Denmark, for example, mothers are given four weeks of maternity leave before childbirth and fourteen weeks afterward. Parents of newborn children are assisted with well-baby nurse-practitioner visits in their homes. In addition, the state implements pension schemes, provides benefits for the unemployed and supports those living with disabilities. Of course, the trade-off for such a “happy” society is a high tax rate. At 60.2%, Denmark last year had the highest top personal income tax rate among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization of developed and emerging countries. And that 60.2% is applied to income over roughly $55,000.
And yet in the pro-life and allegedly family friendly so-called Bible Belt of the “good ol’ God-fearing U. S. of A,” there are conservative political leaders (who are often also biblical fundamentalists) who slash programs designed to help women and children, such as food stamps, nutritional assistance, health insurance for children, and school breakfast and lunch programs, while creating a justifying mythology about handouts versus empowerment. The poor are viewed by the members of the Religious Right as the “takers” and no longer as the “least of these,” to use a biblical phrase. Many Christian fundamentalists side with those politicians who attack the poor, all in the name of following the Bible. But who is following Jesus?
When confronted by the Bible thumpers, Christians are faced with a choice. That choice is either to follow the teachings of Jesus or to follow a cult who worships a book. That book, of course, is the Bible. It seems that Jesus did not like the “Bible” of his day very much. Every time Jesus mentioned the equivalent of a church tradition, namely the Torah, (or Jewish Written Law, consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament”) he qualified it with something like this: “You have heard people say. . . . But I tell you . . .” Many times in the gospels Jesus used that formula or a variation of it. When He spoke of what “you have heard,” he was describing the Torah or the Pharisees’ teaching of the Torah. And in each case, he refuted it. Jesus undermined the scriptures and religious tradition in favor of compassion.
In Luke’s Gospel, for example, a leper came to Jesus and said, “Lord, you have the power to make me well, if only you wanted to.” If Jesus had been a good orthodox religious Jew – one who legalistically followed the teachings of the Torah – he would have said, “Be healed,” and just walked away. Instead, he stretched out his hand and touched the leper, saying, “I want to! Now you are well,” even though he knowingly was breaking the specific rules of Leviticus in which it is written that anyone touching a person with leprosy is contaminated. Every time Jesus undermined the scriptures in this way, it was to err on the side of co-suffering love and not on the side of the Jewish Law.
There is a similar story in the Gospel of Matthew: “A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and barely touched his clothes. She had said to herself, ‘If I can just touch his clothes, I will get well.’ Jesus turned. He saw the woman and said, ‘Don’t worry! You are now well because of your faith.’ At that moment she was healed.” Jesus recognized a bleeding woman touching him as a sign of faith. By complimenting rather than rebuking her, Jesus ignored another of the Torah’s rules: “Any woman who has a flow of blood outside her regular monthly period is unclean until it stops, just as she is during her monthly period. Anything that she rests on or sits on during this time is also unclean, just as it would be during her period. If you touch either of these, you must wash your clothes and take a bath, but you still remain unclean until evening.”
But Jesus’ behavior went beyond healing lepers and welcoming the touch of a bleeding woman. His embrace of the “other in our midst” was both incomprehensible and distressing to both his followers and enemies. A case in point was his encounter of a woman from an enemy tribe in a culture where tribal belonging was paramount. Even the woman knew that his actions were shocking. When Jesus stopped to talk to her, she said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?” Jesus responded by attacking the destructive effects of religion, tradition, dogma, and group identity, offering instead an entirely new way of looking at spirituality by emphasizing basic human dignity above nation, state, gender or religion. Jesus said to her: “Believe me, the time is coming when you won’t worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans don’t really know the one you worship. But we Jews do know the God we worship, and by using us, God will save the world. But a time is coming, and it is already here! Even now the true worshipers are being led by the Spirit to worship the Father according to the truth. These are the ones the Father is seeking to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship God must be led by the Spirit to worship him according to the truth.”
“Worship him according to the truth,” is not about a book, let alone about “salvation” through correct ideas or tradition. For people who say that they follow Jesus, I would think that they would also reject the veneration of the book in which he is trapped by literalism. Fundamentalists struggle to fit Jesus into the Bible, not the other way around. If Jesus is not the “lens” through which fundamentalists read the Bible, then whatever they say to the contrary, they do not really believe Jesus is the one who said: “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” And I suspect that the Bible- thumpers wish that he had not said that!